There has been an uptick of chatter that a Google Update has recently been rolled out. Some have mentioned a specific date of the 24 January, but after investigation, it appears the whole of January has been quite volatile, with the US Index bearing the brunt of it.
We will first look at the SERP trackers on a Global basis for January to show the general volatility. We will then show the Google Grump chart for the US, and how it compares with the UK. Finally, we will look back at the volatility in the US Google SERPs for the last six months to put the current volatility in context.
We will then look at the chatter around the web, and see if any conclusions can be drawn from the data.
Global SERPs Volatility
Rank Risk Index
The Rank Risk Index tracker shows a definite spike in volatility on Jan 24, 2016, with several lesser spikes around one to two weeks prior. A simple spike such as this is typical of minor changes, or testing. Any larger Google Updates tend to be rolled out over several days, so at least on first look, nothing significant appears to be happening.
The SERPmetrics flux index shows a clear spike on January 23 and January 24th. It should be noted that this is for the US .com SERPs.
The MozCast weather report does show some volatility on the January 23, but like the Rank Risk Index it also picks up on some significant volatility on the 7th and 10 January too.
Google Grump is probably one of our favorite tracking tools. As you will see in the next section, you can filter the volatility by Desktop, Mobile, and by Country to gain real insight into what might be happening in the SERPs. First, we will look at the Global chart:
You can see a significant amount of volatility over the past few weeks, with a spike on Jan 20, 2017. This seems to match what we are seeing in the other trackers.
Google Grump US vs. UK Desktop
As we indicated previously, Google Grump lets you see the differences between various countries, and one thing, in particular, stood out. While the spike in question (around January 20) exists in both countries, the US has seen a significant amount of volatility over the whole of January.
The difference between the two is stark and would indicate that something is happening in the US that we are just not seeing in the UK. We wonder if we are not the first to pick up this difference, with a very relevant question being asked on Twitter on the 26th, by Gert Hattingh.
We don't know quite the significance of this statement, or whether we can rely on it. It is possible that Google has been rolling out many tests rather than rolling out permanent changes that might explain it.
We suspect there is something strange going on with the Google Grump data, as if you look at the last six months clear a lot has been happening in the US, and we can explain much of that as in late September 2016, the latest Google Penguin update was launched in real-time. The volatility of that appears to be greater in the US than the UK so that it may be due to the difference in keywords being monitored in each country. We thought it was worth mentioning, though, as it may put the previous observations in some context.
Chatter in the SEO community
A fair amount of chatter is taking place on Webmasterworld.
User BushieTop said on January 23:
Here's a weird one for you that most likely goes against the grain. We saw big improvements in organic on the 15th Dec, but then around the 12th Jan, we saw declines again. To confirm, we dont use interstitials or popups. Very strange.
In reply to that comment, user NickMNS replied:
@BushieTop we have seen something similar but kind of in reverse. We saw slight drop around the Dec 15, then a pickup around Jan3. A record day Jan 11, 12 and now back down to normal. None of these changes are statistically significant. To confirm, we dont use interstitials or popups either.
One user raises the possibility that the volatility may be caused by the new Mobile First Algorithm, which we covered in detail here:
Its more than possible that the mobile first algo is hurting us, we have huge issues with page speed, but our site passes the mobile development and works on a responsive framework, but its slow — we're working on that though :)
We don't believe that the mobile first algorithm has been rolled out yet, but it is
Another theory that might explain the volatility is that Google rolled out an infrastructure update on the 22 January on the Search Console. Google stated that it "may cause a change in your data." One user points this out, confirming at the same time:
Looks like Google Search Console is suddenly showing a considerably larger number of backlinks for several of my sites. I'm seeing quite a few that I didn't previously know about.
It is possible that this update caused the fluctuation in the SERPs.
To be honest, we believe that if there were a major update, there would be more concrete chatter, rather than just a few of the "usual" complaints that are present throughout the year (i.e. Rankings drops, Zombie Traffic, non-converting traffic). As such, we are not too concerned about the latest volatility.
If you have been hit with a drop of traffic, we recommend just reviewing your content and improving it. You should be doing this regularly anyway.
Why is it important to know the impact of a Google Update?
If you have noticed a reduction in your traffic, or keyword rankings the first thing anyone should do is try to determine whether the change is due to something very specific to their website, or whether it is resulting from a wider change that affects many websites.
The reason you need to know this is that it can help diagnose the problem. If it is just your own website that has suffered a drop, and there is no SERP volatility globally, you may want to investigate things like your backlink profile (Penguin) or review your content quality (Panda \ site quality score update).
If your website has suffered a drop in the SERPs, and there is a lot of volatility, it may indicate a wider algorithm change. While it is often not easy to determine what this affects, more often than not making sure your website contains high-quality content is a good way forward here. Furthermore, sometimes you can gain valuable insight from the SEO community who may also be suffering decreases in traffic, or maybe even boasting about rises in traffic.
In some cases, any volatility can be tied to specific updates, such as the recent Interstitials \ Mobile Pop-up penalty. While this only affects the mobile search results, it should be noted that it was launched on the 10 January 2017, so you may want to check if it is just your mobile traffic that has reduced, or your desktop search traffic as well.